A conversation with Kaleem Clarkson, COO and Co-founder of Blend Me, Inc.

“We work with the agencies who are culture-driven, meaning that, yes, we can make more money, but we’d rather make a little less money and put culture first, because we understand that it’s a marathon, right? Like, we understand that if our employees are happy, it’s going to make our situation a lot better.” – Kaleem Clarkson

This week on the Control the Room Podcast, I’m excited to speak with Kaleem Clarkson, COO and Co-founder of Blend Me, Inc., a consulting firm that cultivates remote employee experiences from onboarding through off-boarding. He has a particular interest in culture-driven organizations.

Kaleem is also the COO of RemotelyOne, a members-only community on a mission to end remote work isolation by connecting and building relationships between location-independent professionals.

Kaleem and I speak about the different types of remote work, why some companies are struggling to transition to remote work, and why it’s so important for a job posting to accurately represent your organization’s culture. Listen in to find out how Kaleem’s experience as a member of a college metal band led to his career as an employee experience expert.

Show Highlights

[2:43] Blind Melon, Slick Rick, & Warped Tour
[13:43] The Teleworks Big Three
[20:16] The commonality between organizations struggling to work remotely
[28:56] Company culture clubs
[34:48] Handling employee anxieties during COVID-19 layoffs

Blend Me, Inc.
Kaleem on LinkedIn

About the Guest

Kaleem Clarkson is an employee experience expert and remote work advocate helping organizations build intentional employee lifecycles that begin at initial job postings and end after off-boarding. He is the COO and Co-founder of Blend Me, Inc. a remote employee experience consultancy. He is also the COO of RemotelyOne, a members-only community for location-independent professionals.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

Douglas: Today I’m with Kaleem Clarkson, co-founder and chief operating officer of Blend Me, Inc. He is a remote-employee-experience professional, and developing RemotelyOne, a community for location-independent professionals. Welcome to the show, Kaleem.

Kaleem: Douglas, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I hear this crowd applause in the background. Let’s get that in post-production. I love it.

Douglas: Awesome. So, Kaleem, I’m really curious to hear how an employee-experience professional gets their start. How do you find your way on this path? 

Kaleem: That’s a good question. I probably should have this ready by now. But I guess I’ll start my origin story. I guess this is my origin story. So born and raised in Bangor, Maine. I’m going way back. Bangor, Maine, represent. I always love to throw it out. My home state, I love it. But I ended up going to college in Massachusetts. Got a chance to play at Western State University. Got a chance to play some college football there. And during that time, we all had a very good time. Let’s put it that way. I enjoy having beverages with people, making sure that everyone else is having a good time, and we ended up throwing a good amount of gatherings, should you say, in college. And started getting into a metal band, believe it or not. Just got into a metal band and started rocking out. Love the stage. Love that whole feel to it. And that led me to starting a nonprofit organization called Concerts for Charity, which I think we started in ’99. And we started putting on different concerts with different charities across New England. We got our 513(c) status and started donating to different charities, and we got to work with a lot of cool bands in different areas—you know, a lot of jam bands, a lot of hard-rock bands. We worked with—jeez, I’m trying to think of some bands that we booked in the past. I think we booked Blind Melon on their comeback tour, which was pretty cool. Chk, Chk, Chk out in Sacramento, I remember back in the day. I think we booked Slick Rick, a rapper. If you don’t know, some of the old-school folks.

Douglas: Colleague of Doug E. Fresh, if I’m not mistaken. 

Kaleem: Yeah. Yeah. You know, what’s funny is we went and picked him up at the airport or whatever, and he gets in the car, and total British accent. You know? So, you don’t think about that, like, dude’s been living in England all these years. And gets in, and he’s like, “Hello.” Horrible British accent, by the way. That’s horrible. 

But anyway, yeah. So I got a chance doing that, and that was really kind of my first experience with dealing with virtual volunteers. VolunteerMatch at the time, we ended up connecting with the Warped Tour, and were able to register people to vote through a group called HeadCount as well. Anyway, it was great. It was a cool experience. We got to do a documentary that featured Trey Anastasio from Phish, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones—really big artists in the jam-band scene. And we got to debut it at HBO. So it was cool. I was probably only, what, 21 years old, 22 years old? I really got my first taste of putting on events and just kind of sitting back and watching everybody having a good time. And I think that’s the common theme, right? Everyone was just having a good time. Everyone has that cup, that Red Solo Cup, and that really cheap beer. But everyone’s having a good time, generally. 

And yeah, so I kind of move on. Moved to Atlanta, my partner and I, and get a job at Kennesaw State University at Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. And that’s like a faculty-development center. They basically teach faculty how to teach. I don’t know if you knew that, you know, a lot of people may not know this, but college professors, they graduate with a PhD, and they put right in the classroom, so they don’t go through any teaching training or anything like that, a lot of them. So, yeah, yeah, it was cool. I got to put on a lot of international conferences there. Again, I’m putting on parties again, right, except in a different setting. That was the kind of interesting, or educational piece to me. I didn’t realize faculty also enjoy having a good time, and they do. 

So, yeah, all these professional conferences, got a chance to put some of those on, and really kind of just didn’t even realize that—I was there for 10 or 12 years. And I would have to say in 2012, I believe, during my work at Kennesaw, I got heavily involved with the Drupal community, and Drupal’s an open-source website-application tool, kind of like WordPress, build websites with it. So kind of got involved with that community. And again, that was another experience of being with like-minded people. It was outside of my previous experience of concerts and the entertainment industry, and then getting in the higher ed around faculty in the higher ed industry. Well, now I’m around other computer digital marketers and digital professionals, you know, developers. And yeah, I got heavily involved with Drupal and started building websites, and I kind of became a Drupal developer. And last year, or probably a year and a half ago, yeah, a year, I left higher ed and decided to get involved with a company called Oomph as a UX engineer and started doing some front-end development work.

But the cool thing about Drupal and open source is, again, the networks of people that you meet. And during that time, it was 2012, that I was at a conference in Denver, DrupalCon Denver, and I heard a talk by, his name is Matt Westgate from a company called Lullabot. They’re a big development firm. I think they did the Grammy’s website and some other big ones. But anyway, yeah, I went to that talk, and he was talking about how to run a virtual organization. And he talked about why they weren’t using the word remote and why they were using the word distributed and how those words, what those words actually could mean to people. And I recall him saying remote felt like you were distant from something.

Douglas: Mm-hmm.

Kaleem: You were away from a group of people. So it was fascinating. Like, at that time, 2012, it seems like 100 years ago, but there weren’t very many people talking about how to work remotely. So I came home, and my partner, she had graduated two years before that, in 2010, with her master’s degree from Yukon in organizational development. And she actually wrote her master’s paper thesis on virtual volunteerism, because my charity had hooked up with the Warped Tour, and we had virtual volunteers all over the country. So I came home from that, and I was talking with Jen, and I said, “I think we found something. I think we should do our own thing,” and she was all about it. 

She was looking for strategic HR jobs, and there weren’t very many. People love those jobs, by the way. I’ll use VP of people and CHRO of people; they don’t really leave those jobs, because those jobs, they’re great. Strategic HR’s obviously a much bigger thing now. So we just decided to create Blend Me, Inc. I kind of took care of the marketing, and then she would take care of the engagement, and that’s how we kind of came up with the name. 

So she worked for a while at a company that was all distributed. And, you know, we kind of did some consulting on the side with some diversity inclusion. And at the end of the day, you realize all of your experiences are kind of what, together, are who you are, and I was very fortunate in that I had been at companies for—I was at Kennesaw for a very long time, 11 years, and it was because we had a great time. And now, if I’m looking back, you asked me the origin question of how you become an employee-experience professional, you just look back and think about all of the situations and the moments you had that were special with a special group where you accomplished big goals. We accomplished a lot of great things there, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were all having a really, really good time. 

So this year, with COVID, I decided that it’s time to go full time, that we no longer had that obstacle of proving to people that remote work, you can be productive. That has always been an obstacle. And honestly, what we decided from day one, 2012, when we’re writing our mission statement, we said we did not want to work with agencies that wanted us to prove that remote work was the right answer. We didn’t want to get into that type of work, because trying to prove to somebody that, no, you could do this, it’s just not really in our—we want to help people that have already kind of gone over that hump or already believe that it can be successful, because if there’s not a belief from the very top all the way through the organization, it doesn’t come through as authentic. 

So what’s interesting is for all these years, there’s been a very small market. But I firmly believe, and I think we can all agree, that from March of 2020 on, I don’t think any manager—well, in certain industries, I shouldn’t say that—but I’m going to say in 90 percent of jobs today that we have behind a desk or in an office, it’s going to be very difficult for managers to say that you’re not productive. 

So, yeah, that’s the whole origin story. I think I got it in, like, eight minutes. I got to work on cutting it down a little bit. But, yeah, that’s how we kind of came to this point.

Douglas: Yeah. And I really want to dig in on the definition of remote versus distributed. And, you know, even virtual is kind of mixed in there as well. I ran into this when I was first venturing out of my own and kind of exploring this kind of concept of fractional CTO. And at first I was calling myself a virtual CTO, and someone asked me—it was a junior developer—they said, “So does that mean it’s all in the cloud?” And so I thought maybe this word virtual is not a good fit here. 

That story or that notion of misinterpretation of the word virtual is I know exactly what you’re getting at around remote versus distributed. And I think that a lot of those notions really held us back. But now that everyone’s been thrust into this experience where they’ve been forced to grapple with it, to wrap their hands around it, they’re starting to understand that there are some benefits, and things maybe aren’t as bad as they might imagine.

Kaleem: Absolutely. And you know what really the difficulty with our industry—and when I say “our,” I just mean remote work or telework industry—is that we don’t have an association now. I know Laurel Farrer has just created the Remote Work Association, and I give her kudos to that. And I believe—what’s her name from FlexJobs?—Sara—can’t remember her name, but she started FlexJobs. They created the one-million-person march campaign. There’s been different, like, spin-off campaigns.

But one thing that I’ve learned from higher ed is when you have the National Society for Statistics, Mathematics and Statistics, you know, that’s an organization that spits out all the knowledge. When you have SHRM—Society for Human Resource Management—or you have these major-field associations, there is research. There’s guidance. There are definitions. There are thought leaders. 

And for me and for us when we were trying to talk to clients about the different types of “remote” work, we just always got stuck. Me, having that thought of, well, let’s find the history, and realizing that, oh, okay, well, outside of the U.S., a lot of countries use the term telework. The government agencies use the word telework. You know, there’s telework guidance guidelines for the government—well, before, but I’m pretty sure that they still exist somewhere. So then we were struggling with that. 

So for us, we just figured, okay, we need to come up with our own definitions for when we’re working with clients. And we wanted it to show homage to Jack Nilles for coming up with the word telework in 1973. It’s kind of a little outdated definition, but we just kind of thought, like, okay, all of these different things of telework, and when we’re thinking about the different types, we realized that a lot of the terms are related to a central workplace. So for us, what we decided to do is come up with our own definitions. 

Here we go. We call them teleworks big three, right? So we kind of go with, all of it’s telework work, but a distributed company doesn’t have a centralized workplace. So when we’re talking with our clients, we’re like, “Oh, yeah. We’re a remote company. We don’t have an office.” We’ll say, “Okay, well, for our purposes, when we’re in our meetings and when we’re talking about the programs that we have, we’re going to refer to your agency as a distributed company because you don’t have a centralized workplace.” So employees, they work from wherever they’re the most productive and the most comfortable. So that’s distributed

Then we came to the common word of remote. And what drove us to this was back to that 2012 talk of the reason why they don’t use the word remote was that it felt like you were away from the centralized workplace. Well, Lullabot was 100 percent distributed. They didn’t have a central workplace. But remote employees are away from a centralized workplace. So to me and to us, when we’re talking to—not to me, but internally speaking—remote employees are people who work away from the office. So you have a centralized office, there are people that are going into the office every day, but you also have some remote employees. So that’s how we kind of label that. 

And then our last one is kind of like the telecommuter, telecommute. You know, telecommute employees share their time between a central workplace and working wherever they feel comfortable. 

So to us, that’s kind of how we’ve broken it down. I’d be awesome if everybody out there in the whole remote workspace would say, “Hey, this is great. Let’s all agree to this.” As far as posting social media, remote work is very popular, the term remote work. And we’re kind of still in that space as well, so we understand. But when we’re internal, I kind of feel like there are definitely differences.

Another word that we’ve seen before to replace kind of remote employee is maybe hybrid. You know, we’ve heard people talk about a hybrid setup and a hybrid setup means half the people are in a central workplace and half the people are not. 

So I do feel like it’s really important. I wish, I hope somebody steps up and maybe the Remote Work Association will be that governing body for all of us, where we can all post our research too and be a place. For right now, I guess we’ll use the term remote work when we’re talking to the rest of the world and just try to clarify the differences between the different types, because there’s a major difference in communication facilitation and how you’re going to manage your team based on the types of telework that you’re implementing.

Douglas: Absolutely. And I would imagine that the tactics would be quite different and maybe even the programs which you might use to address the concerns or the needs. 

So when you think about these three, this taxonomy, when you’re working with clients, is there one category that you find is most popular?

Kaleem: Yeah. There’s no doubt that what we call remote or “hybrid” is the most popular, especially like today—you know, so it’s kind of a difficult question because it’s like, well, are you talking about before or after? So before; let’s just talk about before. Before, and I’m saying just so the world knows I’m talking about before COVID-19, okay? Before COVID-19, I would say there were definitely more hybrid companies or remote companies where they had people working in a central workplace and some people working remotely. Telecommuter, it’s kind of, you know, I would say a lot of agencies allow their people to work from home a couple of times. So I would say definitely between telecommuting agencies that lets you work from home a couple of times a week and the hybrids were by far the most popular.

Douglas: And what do you think folks are learning as they’re shifting a bit, as far as their ability to set the frequency at which people were remote? They went from being a part-time, somewhat sometimes kind of thing to being a full-time thing. And I’m sure you’ve seen them kind of struggle from—because I would imagine some of the practices and approaches they were using, let’s say the weaknesses maybe started to show more once they started to lean more heavily into it. So I’m curious what you noticed. As folks have been forced to be more remote, what have they noticed that broke down? What was no longer working for them? And I’m interested from a pattern standpoint. Like, what’s been consistent across most of your conversations? What are you hearing that’s like a…kind of a very common issue that’s been breaking down for folks as they have become more remote?

Kaleem: There’s no doubt it’s been communication. We kind of used to brand ourselves as an internal-marketing agency, and we still do a lot of internal marketing. But there’s no doubt that the communication has been one of the biggest breakdowns, because you weren’t set up to do this. One of the things that we talk about when you’re designing your employee experience is you have to look at it from the day they look at your job ad to the day that they are departing. And if you don’t have a plan—and you know this with meetings—if you don’t have an agenda, right, or you don’t have a set of goals that are intentional, then your product’s not going to most likely be as good. And then that goes for the same thing with internal communication and doing remote work. 

The ones who are struggling are the ones who did not have good internal-marketing practices in place. The organizations who are struggling are the ones who don’t trust their employees. The ones who are really having a tough time are the ones who did not take on the responsibility of providing enough resources, enough training, enough documentation to allow you to be distributed now. 

So it’s really interesting to see the companies who haven’t even missed a beat. A lot of the Drupal companies in the web-development space, I’m learning a lot of this, the culture and the practice and stuff, from some of these companies. They’re going on—you know that talk that I’m telling you about is 2012. Another company, Four Kitchens, I mean, they’re another Drupal company. They’ve been distributed now for, jeez, probably eight years. And the company I work for, they’ve had distributed people. 

So the organizations who are not having a challenge at all are the ones who are already prepared to be remote already. So, you know, just to kind of re-emphasize, the ones who did not have their internal-communications strategy set up are the ones who are struggling the most. There’s no doubt. 

Douglas: Yeah. And so what are the hallmarks of a good internal-marketing program? How do we bolster those communication plans?

Kaleem: Whew, yeah, that’s a deep one. That’s a deep one. So just not just internal marketing. I probably shouldn’t say the ones who didn’t have the internal-marketing plan, but more along the lines of, you didn’t have your whole employee experience planned out, because you can have the best internal marketing set up, but if you haven’t explained how your culture works or what your culture’s like, a remote employee can’t feel that. So I guess I should say, you know, yes, internal marketing is critical because it’s part of communication. That’s a huge piece. But in the whole employee experience, there are a lot of steps. 

And I would say Gallup, for all you researchers out there, Gallup, we’ve been quoting Gallup a long time for all of the awesome research they’ve done on remote work: how many people work remotely? They’re one of the best that have been producing it. They kind of came up with this great diagram of what the employee experience is like. I’ll just kind of go through those different spaces, because internal marketing kind of fits kind of within these things, right?

So their first thing that they talk about is attract. How is your job description written? Does it reflect the type of people that work at your agency? And are you attracting the type of people that you want to be at your agency? So what’s your culture statement look like? Do you have a page that talks about your culture? Do you meet every single day? Is it more of a Netflix—work-90-hours-a-week-type culture, or are you more like work whenever you feel comfortable? So that’s important that your website’s set up right. 

Then, you got to hire. Is your hiring practice matching what you’ve already talked about? Are you interviewing with multiple people on the teams? Are you meeting those people? Do you have a chance to talk to the culture club or people outside of your team instead of just your team? 

Then, you have to onboard the people. So now you’re only at step three. Onboarding and onboarding alone are very, very thorough. Onboarding program can be up to 18 months. You’re talking about, okay, you’ll get 30-, 60-, 90-day reviews, and you have to kind of establish what your goals kind of were. And so onboarding can be long.

Then, you have engagement. You got to make sure your employee’s engaged. So you have engagement pieces. 

Then, you have to set up and go to performance. You got to make sure your performance evaluations are set up correctly. Make sure that everybody understands what is expected of you to be successful at that organization.

And then you have to develop them, right? And then they depart at some point. 

So this huge step of, like, seven steps of the whole employee experience, what we’ve realized from remote work is that you have to have trust. Trust is even more critical. Trust is even more critical because, you know, are you an agency that is going to try to have a piece of software that takes snapshots of your individuals every 90 seconds? Or are you a results-only-type agency that cares more about the results and understands that, hey, with school the way it is in some places, people may not be able to work all day. You know, people may have to work at a different time. So trust is critical. 

And then, we kind of talked about responsibility earlier. You have to have this—you know, to work remotely, there’s a sense of responsibility both on the employee and on the employer. It’s a very two-way street. 

So, like, this whole, whole thing is kind of what is the pillar of the remote-employee experience, kind of something that we’re kind of labeling as “tree”, trust and responsibility. In order for you to get that set up, you just have to start at the beginning, and you have to be intentional of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish in each step. 

So, I know I didn’t answer your question specifically about, like, what are some of the pillars in establishing a good internal-marketing strategy? But, you know, I just kind of wanted to really emphasize that you need to think about this whole thing and not just the internal-marketing side. You have to think about this whole thing, because now we don’t have those office places that people can talk to and interact with. You know, now people are distributed behind a computer. So you really do have to think about the whole spectrum. 

Douglas: Yeah, that makes sense. What is that journey the employees taking, and how can you meet them at various moments in that journey with intention?

Kaleem: Yeah. Yeah. And we’re just seeing it right now. The groups who really, really, really care about their employees, that are—what we like to say is we like to work with agencies who are culture driven. And to us, what that means is, listen, we all want to make money. I kind of feel like people trip sometimes when you talk about we care about people. Even nonprofits, people—look, nonprofits make money, people, just so you know this. And I used to tell people about this all the time. A nonprofit, a 513(c) is an IRS designation. All that means is that entity does not have shareholders. Charities make profits. Your business has to make profits to be sustainable. So with all of that said, we work with the agencies who are culture driven, meaning that, yes, we can make more money, but we’d rather maybe only make a little less money and put culture first, because we understand that it’s a marathon, right? Like, we understand that if our employees are happy, it’s going to just make our situation a lot better. So I think one thing I like to talk about is culture-driven agencies.

Douglas: Yeah, I like that, this notion that that’s a priority and a focus for the leadership. 

So I want to talk a little bit about some tactics. And something that we talked about, or that I noticed, in some of our preshow exchange was around the use of Google Docs and how you can, as a remote tool, use that to focus the team into a common task. So I’m just really curious around what are some things that people can go do today, whether it’s, like, use Google Docs in this fashion, if you want to elaborate on that, or it could be any other tactic or approach, but what’s something that they can just go literally try out and improve their employee experience? 

Kaleem: All right. That’s cool. I like that. I like that. So I’m just going to kind of go through each one of them. I think that kind of will make a little bit more sense in my brain. 

So the first thing that you can do to attract the type of employees that you want, I learned this, actually, with Oomph, inc. is they created a culture club, which I thought was pretty neat. Get some of your team together, make it voluntary, and say, “Hey, you know what. We want to kind of rewrite what our culture statement is like to better fit who we are today. And we want to kind of better illustrate what it’s like to be a part of this team.” I like to use team instead of family. Sometimes families…you know. So, yeah, “What is it like to be a part of this team?” so that you’re attracting the right people. 

The other thing, too, is to kind of attract some of those people that you’re looking at, get outside of your normal bubble and market yourself, but—we love to say, and now I’m going to kind of talk about engaged—look for people that are going to add to your culture instead of culture fit. So we like to use the word culture ad versus culture fit. Culture’s great, but we all talk about why is culture great aside from the obvious reasons from a personal and emotional level. 

Back to business, you want as many different people on your team so that you have different perspectives. Like, if you want to just talk about “Straight cash, homey,” T.O. quote, it’s more about having people, more variety of people, on your team so that you have different perspectives. You know, just think of Corn Pops. If Corn Pops would’ve had maybe more people on their marketing team, they wouldn’t have sent out that Corn Pops box years ago, where the only brown Corn Pops person as the janitor. You know what I’m saying? Like, that’s a huge gaffe, right? 

So that’s attract. So that’s one thing that you could do. Maybe get a culture club together, try to rewrite your culture statement.

With hiring, I would say a good one is—oh, yeah. This is a simple one. This is more probably along the lines of in your wheelhouse of facilitation—do not, by all means, do an interview with—and I’m sorry to say this, Owl Labs, because you have an awesome product, but it feels awkward—don’t do an interview with your team at a conference table and the employee remote. I understand—I think Owl Labs cameras are the best. Now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s an unbelievable product, in my opinion. You know, it kind of jumps around to the person that’s speaking, and the camera shows the whole room, and it kind of goes back and forth. It’s super cool. Like, I would suggest it for any agency that has multiple board rooms in different places that are meeting and talking. But when you have an interviewee, their first impression, and they’re trying to talk with you and you’re at a conference-room table with eight of your colleagues side by side, there is already an us-versus-them experience. So it’s already a “I’m here, and you’re there.” So my suggestion is just get everybody on Zoom or whatever video system you’re using. Equality, it’s about the same. So put everyone on the same call, the same platform, the same camera. Everywhere the same. 

Douglas: Yeah. You know, I’ve said that for years. Like, if we’re facilitating and someone’s remote, everyone should be remote because we want to level the playing field. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to empathize if we’re not all experiencing what everyone else is or what those few individuals are experiencing. And it reminds me of all-hands meetings years and years ago, where people would dial into it. And then I thought to myself, what is it like to actually dial into one of these things? So I dialed into one, and it was—I mean, I couldn’t hear anything. It was [muffled]. And then you’d hear people talking like that, and you’d think, oh, I don’t know. I don’t even know what anyone’s saying. And maybe every now and then you could make out a few things the CEO said but definitely didn’t hear any questions or any dialogue. And it’s, like, really not great. And so I love that point of, like, let’s level the playing field. 

Kaleem: Yeah. Yeah. 

So then for onboarding, so you’re kind of talking about Google Docs and stuff. But for onboarding, simple solution, like, you got to have a place where someone’s going to learn about the organization. Believe it or not, a lot of companies don’t have a moment to hear the origin story. Like, we talked about my origin story earlier. And to a lot of people, they may fast forward, but, like, hey, I love to rep Bangor. You know, there’s an emotion to why a business got started. You know what I mean? There’s something outside. There’s a story. And if people don’t know that story,  then they may not understand what it is, you know, what are the values that are driving the organization? 

So to me, I know onboarding is not the initial, it’s not the first interaction with the agency. It’s not even where first opinions happen, because it’s in the third step. We’re in the third step, right? I mean, we understand that your first impression is definitely the job description. I mean, when people look at the jobs, their first impression is the job description, and then they go on your website. But when you’re onboarding, this is kind of like the first time that employees get to interact or participate. This is the first time that the individual’s participating. So this is a really, really, really crucial moment to let them know what that origin story is and let them know what values are driving your organization. 

So one of my first recommendations is just record a video of the founder. I mean, it doesn’t even have to be crazy. Just record a video of when the founder got the idea for the business and why the founder started it, and then maybe a little bit about what drives the company. Because right now, COVID-19, if you have to let go of 20 people, or maybe you have a staff of 100 and you got to let go 20 or 30 people, those other people that are there, they go through all sorts of emotions, never mind the people that you let go. But the people that are staying there are going through some stuff. They lost some friends that are no longer employed. There’s a little bit of uncertainty about the future. If all your employees know what drives you even during uncertain times, a lot of these anxieties that make people nervous and get people looking for other options will be erased. 

So onboarding is so critical, and I can’t give away all my secrets. 

Douglas: Sure, sure.

Kaleem: So I would say the video is something simple. If you don’t have a quick little video that somebody can watch or even, like, a couple paragraphs, how you got started and why you got started and then what drives you. And I know people use the word values all the time. I’m trying to use different words than mission and vision and all that stuff. But what drives your company?

Douglas: Yeah. And a couple things I would add there. It’s like so many companies talk about values, and even in the job description, they’ll describe things that are aspirational and not necessarily—they’re not really conveying the fact that we are that culture that’s working 60, 80 hours a week. And if you plan to retain people and you’re doing that, you should be pretty honest about it up front, right?—

Kaleem: Right. Yes, be honest.

Douglas: —rather than tricking people into coming in. And then the same thing with values, right? If they’re just some words that we adopted because they sound like stuff that, you know, you put on values—

Kaleem: Hardworking, go-getter. I mean, like, what is that?

Douglas: Yeah. And integrity. 

Kaleem: Yeah. Like, what is that? What is that? 

Douglas: So if you can make them authentic, then I think people are going to resonate with those. And if they’re shared values that they hold, then it can get people really excited. So I think that’s really great. 

Kaleem: Yeah, yeah.

Douglas: And one thing that I saw a company do here in Austin I’ve always been a fan of is they created a scavenger hunt, and, essentially, new employees were given this scavenger hunt. And the cool thing about the scavenger hunt was that it included different aspects of the company’s history. The way that they got to the answers or found these things, they would have to go talk to other employees in other departments. And so they got—

Kaleem: Nice.

Douglas: —to know so much about the way the company worked, the way the company—

Kaleem: I love this.

Douglas: —had evolved over time, and they made friends and connected. And it was very participatory. So I love it because it’s like a facilitator’s dream to do those kinds of things. And so if more companies could institute these types of more participatory onboarding practices, I think you’d start to get into what we talk about as facilitator leadership.

Kaleem: I love that idea. You’re definitely going to have to send me some—maybe you can remember the company and send me some stuff on that. I think that’s a great, great idea. 

So then, yeah. So then you have engagement. And there’s a million different ideas for engagement. One thing that I love for remote work that—I don’t know, maybe this is more in performance—so engagement, you’ve got to keep your remote workers engaged. So do you host an annual retreat? Do you host a quarterly retreat? You know, how many—do you have—I don’t want to say happy hour, but that’s no good. The link to—Zoom happy hours have been pretty tiring of late. 

Oh, on engaged, this is my tip for engaged. Something very simple. Ask your employees how they’re feeling. Like, literally, you could not imagine how many companies just don’t send a very simple employee engagement survey out to their employees. Like, all of us consultants in H.R. are like, “Yo, stop talking, Kaleem.” But the fact that you just don’t do that, it’s so easy. Just write, like…

And the other thing that I would suggest is if you’re going to use a survey, if you’re going to have a survey, you got to have a plan of what you’re going to do with the data. So come up with a very simple survey. And I would say ask that question, ask that survey, the exact same time next year so that you can have some sort of benchmarks. You know, doing a survey for no reason, you need to be able to have some data. And  I actually suggest surveying people frequently. There’s a lot of great survey software out there. Like, I don’t know. Was it Officevibe? Culture Amp? All of these softwares that send random questions to employees. You may not have that software, the budget for that, but you can come up with a very easy SurveyMonkey or Google Forms with four or five questions and ask your employees every quarter. And they could be the same questions. Maybe you’ll find out that in the fall this one question’s being answered, and they’re lower in this for some reason. So for engagement, that would be my one tip is you got to ask your employees how they’re feeling.

Douglas: Awesome. We’ve definitely covered the gamut, from starting off with a good impression on job descriptions; making sure we’re thinking about that human connection in the remote landscape; the taxonomy—making sure we think about what bucket we’re in, what is our style of remote work, and how can our approaches and tactics be tuned to be appropriate for our style—all the way through to making sure that we are engaging folks and even understanding how they’re feeling, especially in this time of a global pandemic that can be damaging morales and stuff. So, wow, covered a ton, and it’s been a blast thinking about all this stuff, Kaleem. And I know that the listeners are probably curious how they can connect with you, learn more, maybe end with a little bit around how they can find you.

Kaleem: Yeah, sure. You can find me personally anywhere: kaleemclarkson. So I’m @kaleemclarkson on Twitter, LinkedIn. And you can find our company at blendmeinc.com. And also Remotely One. If you are a remote location, independent professional, and you’re feeling the pains of isolation and loneliness and you want to still kind of build your network, come join Remotely One. We’re a members-only community for location and independent professionals. So you can find us at remotelyone.com or @remotelyone. 

And yeah, I guess if there was something that I wanted to kind of sign off on, I guess that would be, let’s not all go back—if there was a piece of advice that I could give to organizations out there, don’t go back to the way it was before COVID-19 “just because.” So let me repeat that. Don’t go back to business before COVID-19, don’t go back “just because.” And what I mean by that is take this time as an opportunity to further develop your organization to be prepared for other disaster contingencies. They’re going to happen. If you’re up in New England, you deal with the snow. Midwest, you deal the snow. I mean, there are disasters all the time. Hurricanes. Remote work, as you all have noticed, can help you make it through those times. So take this time to figure out how you can be better when you go back, when we go back, to the “new normal,” and maybe think about how you can reuse your space or reuse some of the things that you used to do before. So let’s just not go back to the way it was before COVID-19.

Douglas: Kaleem, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. Thanks for joining.

Kaleem: I appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me on. Come back anytime.

Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.